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Queer art as historical record

Lori Gum

Mon, Feb 18, 2019

Throughout the month of February, the Wex has a healthy lineup of programming reflecting the LGBTQ experience, such as the documentary Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt and the exhibition Peter Hujar: Speed of Life, along with an incredibly early example of gender fluidity on film, the 1915 Italian adventure tale Filibus. Lori Gum, Columbus-based renaissance woman and contributor to publications such as PRIZM and 614, offers her informed perspective on the role of art in documenting a segment of society that's historically existed on the fringe.

It might be said that “memory” and “history” are at opposite ends of a spectrum that encompasses the whole of human recollection. Like bookends meant to tightly hold together our recorded human experience, memory is the realm of emotion, storytellers and survivors while history proposes to be the scholarly, empirical and official, unbiased truth of our chronological human existence. There is a monstrous, cruel and discriminatory chasm in between, particularly for minority, marginalized and persecuted communities who find themselves excluded from the official documentation upon which mainstream history has constructed its foundation. But no matter how brutalized, silenced and ignored, our stories just won’t go away. And it is our artists and filmmakers who have collected these stories, molded them expertly with their singular artistic visions and turned them into powerful tools of quiet and intimate resistance. Our queer artists have excelled at this.

Several offerings at the Wex this February bring this notion into stark spotlight. At the forefront of this program are queer filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who directed the films, Paragraph 175 (2000) and Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt (1989, screening February 28 at the Wex). These profound works passionately and admirably serve to bridge that aforementioned chasm and feature excruciating personal recollections of both those that were persecuted for being gay men by Nazis during the Holocaust and the human loss of the AIDS epidemic evidenced by loved ones and even those that would not survive long enough to see the film released.

It might be noted at this point, that any official history of the Holocaust went generally undocumented by mainstream scholars until the courageous and previously unheard testimony of Holocaust survivors was allowed to be presented at the Eichmann trial in 1961, some 20 years after the horrific events had actually taken place. It was those stories that created a desire within academia and among historical scholars, particularly in Israel, to officially document this history. 

Hannah Arendt would use this opportunity to forever burn in our psyches the notion of the “banality of evil” but even then, the queer side of this story, the marginalized within the marginalized, was excluded. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that our own writers and filmmakers would begin telling the tale of the “pink triangle”, the symbol adopted by the Nazis to mark mostly gay men for roundup and confiscation in concentration camps often resulting in death. Queer artists continued to track down the survivors and present their stories as another chapter of the Holocaust worthy of official historical interest. And although, at this date, it has already been screened at the Wex this month, it is worth your time to search out this impressive film. Paragraph 175 will take your breath.

As will Common Threads. This film is more of a presentation on a meta-memory: the recollections of five loved ones about those who have died from AIDS-related illness, centered around the physical “memory”... of the “Quilt” created by the NAMES PROJECT at its first showing at the National Mall in 1987. It was a literal collection of three-by-six-foot textile, felt and fabric gravestones weighing more than 56 tons that commemorated AIDS-related deaths with more than 1,920 panels. It would grow in size to more than 48,000 panels illustrating provocatively the increased numbers of AIDS victims and the rise in awareness and community involvement around the tragedy. Epstein and Friedman would win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and cement their legacy as queer artists dedicated to saving our stories and transforming them into queer history and even American history. You may have seen this film years ago, but see it again. Its tale of the scale of human tragedy is heartbreaking.  It must be remembered.

Moreover, the Wex's gallery presentation of the work of queer photographer Peter Hujar in Peter Hujar: Speed of Life continues the theme of queer artists documenting our queer lives, both the counterculture and our activists, when no one else would. Just viewing his photo of Gay Liberation Front Poster Image (detail above), created just after the Stonewall riots in 1969 for the newly formed “Gay Liberation Front” and full of defiant, joyous and proud young faces, juxtaposed against his photo of Candy Darling On Her Deathbed (his most widely produced work in his lifetime) immediately encompasses all of the dreams, hopes and, ultimately, nightmares that befell this newly resistant and radicalized community. The very existence of this show at the Wexner Center illustrates the profound transformation of Hujar’s creations of personal memory into queer history and official art history. 

Still from the 1915 silent adventure film Filibus

And finally...

“I will fight him with his own weapon!”, declares the eponymous, notorious thief Filibus (image above) in this 1915 Italian silent film directed by Mario Roncoroni (screening this Thursday as part of Cinema Revival). It might be best described as a Georges Méliès version of Catch Me If You Can with a gender-bending component that has made it ripe for rediscovery and renewed analysis in 2019. A restored presentation screens at the Wex this Thursday, February 21.

The film begins as the famous Detective Hardy declares publicly that he will catch this cheeky thief and bring Filibus, the “mysterious sky pirate” to justice. Enter the elegant Baroness Troximonde who shows up to register to compete for the monetary reward for capture of Filibus only to declare to Detective Hardy that, “I will prove that you are Filibus!” 

Consequently, turn-of-the-20th-century, futuristic chaos ensues, with the Baroness ascending in a silver balloon-like basket to her metal zeppelin in the sky after she contacts her all-male posse via a heliograph. We learn quickly that the Baroness and the infamous thief, Filibus, now appearing to us dressed in gender-neutral black tights, a black mask and a newsboy hat, are one and the same and can descend from the zeppelin to any contact point over earth. (The film never explains exactly how Filibus came to obtain her super-hero-like magical metal zeppelin, nor does it explains why the all-male crew of the craft serve her so loyally or who they might even be. But honestly, it is so delightfully strange and absurd that, as a viewer, I didn’t care.) 

And descend she does. On one particular occasion, she hovers over the unsuspecting Detective Hardy as he dines on his outside porch and sprinkles a narcotic potion, causing him to fall asleep instantly. This gives Filibus just long enough to capture the detective’s palm print in order to frame him for future robberies with his own crime fighting tools… just as the she had promised.

But here is where it gets really interesting and completely surreal. In order to infiltrate Detective Hardy’s household so that she may gain access to the home of a family friend to ultimately steal precious diamonds stored in the eyes of a taxidermied, ancient Egyptian cat, the Baroness/Filibus descends and assumes the role of cisgender male, Count De la Brive. The count stages a fake kidnapping of the Detective’s sister so that he can rescue her and in reward for such heroics, be brought into the bosom of the family. The sister falls for the count who begins to woo her on a walk to the shore, out of attraction or opportunism, we don’t know (but we can suspect the latter). This scene led the Dortmund Cologne International Women's Film Festival which screened the film in 2013, to describe Filibus as "probably one of the first lesbian characters in the history of film”.

Maybe. But this not a film about queer lives or queer experiences. Nor was it made by queer filmmakers as far as we know. In my opinion, this is simply a supportive nod to the early 20th-century feminism that was taking hold at that time in Italy, valiantly expressing the unfairness of gender inequality in that society and celebrating the individuals who would upend that. In the end, the character of Filibus is empowered by her representational gender-fluidity and her subversion of gender norms, and therein resides the strength, resilience and relevance of this film. 

I do take umbrage at some past commentators referring to this film and character as representing “transgenderism.” It does not. This portrayal is about the public presentation of gender not the self-identity of gender or sexuality. At best, it shows cross-dressing for opportunistic reasons. But one might imagine a queer person seeing this in 1915 and being thrilled. Our queer experience of rare mainstream visibility in the past can, no doubt, make us forgive a lot. 

In the end, Filibus does not succeed in framing Detective Hardy and barely makes it out of a trap set by him for her capture. As she rises one final time to her safe-space onboard her airship, the ending suggests that a film serial of this rivalry would continue, but it was not to be. Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary shortly after this film was released and the adventures of the brash, daring and fearless Filibus were put to an abrupt end.

But for us today, it is a whimsical, futuristic and delightful romp with the issue of our changing notions of gender presentation as its star and this film duly needs to be seen and discussed.  Furthermore, Giovanni Bertinetti, the scenario writer of the film, declared in a manifesto in 1909 that, “the essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt”.

Our queer artists couldn’t have said it any better.